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Auschwitz – A Harrowing Reminder of Why We Must Defend Democracy

Lejla Nuhanović is a 2023 McCain Global Leader and a journalist, translator, and video editor who has spent the last decade honing her skills at the Federal News Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The European cohort of the 2023 McCain Global Leaders visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum as part of the cohort’s Changemaker Tour.


“And there was no one left to speak for me.”

Imagine you’re stepping out of a cattle car in which you spent the past you don’t even know how many days, clutching your 25 kilograms of belongings. A familiar sound reaches your ears. It takes a couple of moments, but you realize it’s Beethoven’s Fifth played by an actual orchestra in your close vicinity. A melody your father used to play on his gramophone after he returned home from work at the small clothing store he owned in downtown Warsaw. He found it soothing and relaxing.

That now distant albeit pleasant memory is interrupted by a military man who signals you to take to the left. You only realize now how much you smell of urine and sweat and disease. It was something on the cattle car that you contracted that made you feeble. You yearn for a shower. The military officers tell you that’s exactly what you will be getting shortly and order you to undress in an underground hall. You didn’t imagine you will be taking a shower with that many people but you strongly desire water to reach the skin of your body and clean you of everything that has touched it in the last couple of days.

As you wait for the water to hit you, you look above and see a square-shaped hole next to the showerhead. You don’t think much of it but the shaft of the hole opens and blue crystal-like rocks pour into the chamber. They start releasing some sort of gas. Suddenly, you are very dizzy. You had no food in days but you still become nauseous and want to throw up. Then you start realizing that it’s getting harder to breathe. You’re gasping for air but you just can’t get it into your lungs no matter how hard you try. You will never realize just how lucky you are to stand right next to the crystals because it takes you only three minutes to die while people in the farthest parts of the chamber take up to 20 minutes. Some, realizing their imminent fate, are banging on the doors, begging to be let out, offering all their worldly possessions for only one breath of fresh air.

That’s the scene that my mind constructed as I listened to our tour guide at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland the McCain Institute took us to as part of our regional Changemaker Tour. I decided to dedicate this blog post to that very scene because it was a harrowing and educational but strangely inspiring experience. It also seemed to be perfectly fitting for this year’s topic of “Defending Democracy”. I believe that the experience at Auschwitz showed us exactly what happens on the extreme end of our failure to defend democracy.

As I’m still gathering reflections from our visit to Poland and the brilliantly executed program by the McCain Institute staff, I can’t help but be reminded of the struggle of our fellow Ukrainians, of whom some joined us on the tour, who are going through similar dehumanization techniques and are being constantly and systematically stripped of their identity. It all reminds me of Martin Niemöller’s famous statement as a sort of call for action:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Today, I believe this responsibility of speaking up and defending democratic values from the very first instance we see them endangered weighs even more heavily on our shoulders than in previous decades, as our brothers and sisters in Ukraine endure the appalling actions perpetrated by Putin’s Russia. It’s up to each of us individually to ensure that the cloak of inaction that allowed the Holocaust never returns. In this endeavor, we can draw inspiration from the unwavering dedication of leaders like Senator John McCain. He tirelessly fought against autocrats and criminal regimes, not only for the sake of his own nation but also for the very principles of democracy and human rights worldwide. Senator McCain’s legacy serves as a beacon, reminding us of the importance of standing up against oppression and tyranny in all its hideous forms wherever and whenever they may arise. Just as he displayed extraordinary courage in his battles, we too must muster the same determination to protect the values of democracy and freedom for all, which is in and of itself a cause larger than ourselves.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Lejla Nuhanović, 2023 McCain Global Leader
Publish Date
September 25, 2023